The National Church of God in Fort Washington, Md., was filled Saturday with an eclectic offering of music by generations of singers from the storied choir tradition at D.C.’s Eastern High School.
Dressed in black dresses and tuxedos, nearly 300 singers performed a rich range of music under the watchful eye of legendary director Joyce Garrett. Those who packed the sanctuary sang along and clapped as they took a musical tour back to the choir room of the old red school building on East Capitol Street NE.
“It was an amazing event,” said Garrett, the event’s visionary who directed choirs at Eastern for more than three decades after first arriving in 1972. “The Eastern Choir sound was still there and there was so much love on stage.”
The concert featured alumni singers from the past five decades. From the very beginning, with a song inspired by the Old Testament account of the creation in the Book of Genesis, it was clear that weeks of practice for the concert had paid off
WHUR’s Jacquie Gales-Webb, the concert’s moderator, said of the singers, “They just didn’t get older, they got better.”
In the wake of the 1968 riots and a city torn by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Garrett, who moved to D.C. in 1965, had a vision for her choirs that was much more than singing in tune. That vision was reflected in the music Saturday with upbeat selections like “Let Freedom Ring.”
As the choirs sang songs reflective of their periods, it was clear that singing for Eastern made a profound difference in the lives of many young people.
“The concert choir had to be different and unlike the gospel sound,” Garrett told the Afro. “The music was more interpretive and singers used their head voice versus their chest voice. I wanted a refined gospel belt. I needed a different type of choir to sing 360 degrees of music.”
One of the highlights of the concert was when Y’Anna Crawley, Class of 1995 and the second-season winner of BET’s “Sunday Best” gospel singing competition, led the 1990s choir in Kirk Franklin’s “Silver and Gold.”
Over the years, Garrett’s groups performed for presidents and during many of the city’s premier events. In 1988, she took a choir to Vienna to compete in the 17th annual International Youth and Music Festival.
Garrett said it has never been easy to produce that Eastern choir sound over three decades. It is a mixture of classical, gospel and other music genres performed with great discipline.
“I like a full rich sound that sounds electric,” said Garrett, who has trained and performed with many of the city’s top voices over the years as director of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of the Gospel Mass Choir.
The 2000 choir was directed by noted gospel artist Patrick Lundy, who succeeded Garrett after she retired in 1999.
Garrett said the title of the concert was “Glorious Dreams,” because for decades she has pushed young people to excel in life.
“It wasn’t just about music,” she said. “I used music as a tool to teach students what they needed to know to be successful in life.”
Garrett continues to direct groups to this day. Some of the highlights of her career include having the Eastern Choir invited to the White House to perform for President Ronald Reagan, serving as the choirmaster for annual Christmas in Washington televised celebration as well as directing choirs for the Kennedy Center Honors on CBS.
Today, Garrett serves as the music and worship arts director at the Alfred Baptist Church in Alexandra, Va., where she has been a member for nearly 40 years.
From 1990 to 2006, Garrett directed the United States Naval Academy Gospel Choir.
“Directing singers in the chapel of the Naval Academy and going on spring break tours across the country was one of the highlights of my life,” she said.
Garrett said that wherever she has gone she stressed excellence and at least five key attributes: “perseverance, loyalty, dependability, self-control, and the value of higher education and high achievement.”
The concert ended with all of the choirs singing en masse for the finale, “There is a Dream With Your Name In It.”
Garrett was greeted with hugs and words of thanks from many of her students, including Maurice Jenkins (Class of 1973).
“I graduated from Eastern in 1973, attended the University of Maryland in College Park, and graduated in 1977,” Jenkins wrote in the souvenir program. “Currently, serving as the Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer for the United Negro College Fund, I am extremely excited about this reunion. To join old classmates and choir members and reminisce about those extraordinary times we had together is a blessing. This choir, under the leadership of Joyce Garrett, was very inspirational and motivating. She believed in excellence; therefore I left Eastern to go to college with the many inspirational songs in my heart and my spirit, which has been very much a part of who I am today.”